Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What alternative tunings can do for you

In the course of recording a radio interview, I was asked why anyone would want to bother with tunings other than 12-tone equal temperament. I usually have a nice long answer to the question, but here's more or less what I said today in an attempt at a short answer:

Paying attention to tuning is useful in three regards for me as a composer and musician. The first is that instead of accepting the quality of an interval as given, a musician has access to a whole range of qualities, from smooth to beating slowly to beating roughly, and from clear to vague in identity. An interval can be tuned so that the component parts of the spectra of the individual tones coincide or deviate when combined, and the degree to which they deviate may be controlled. In working with tones with simple harmonic spectra, Just Intonation or a tuning with intervals close to Just will yield intervals which have a quality, to my ears, clarity, quite different from that heard when the tuning has intervals which are distant from Just. Conversely, when working with instruments which have spectra that are not composed of simple harmonic relationships, tunings which map those more complex relationships may better fit into and represent that timbre. The second reason is that alternative tunings may introduce tonal relationships that are simply not available in 12-tone equal temperament. From one tuning to another, sequences of intervals may end up in very different places. For example, in 15-tone equal temperament, the sum of three "tritones" is not an octave and a tritone as in 12, but rather an interval that one recognizes at once as a twelfth. That makes a modulation possible that is impossible in 12. Finally, the quality of a tuning may make tonal relationships more or less explicit or more or less ambiguous. In temperaments, rational intervals are often represented by a shared pitch. A minor seventh in 12-tone equal temperament might, in some cases represent a functionally dissonant - and resolution-inviting - seventh with a ratio of 16:9, or the consonant third of the minor v chord or the fifth of the bIII, 9:5, or, as in some North American vernacular musics, a consonant seventh , 7:4. When the small differences between these intervals are "tempered out", a certain ambiguity comes into play, but in a Just Intonation, these functional identitites are made explicit through distinctive intonation. I find that having flexible access to musical materials that can so easily invoke ambiguity or explicitness is not just an intellectual game but is, in practice, musically very useful.


Hucbald said...

"Just" curious (Ha): What type of computer system and software do you work with? I used to be a Synclavier owner and programmer, and I've looked for years for something to replace it, but nothing I've come across really excites me the way the Sync did. I'd like something that would allow me to use my additive and FM programming chops, specify tunings, and that would still allow for note entry via standard notation when I want to do that.

Daniel Wolf said...

I'm not altogether sure that I should be a model for anyone when it comes to software, but here goes. I have both WinXp and Linux on my machine, but for music, I use the Win machine almost exclusively these days, not so much out of choice but for lack of programs in Linux that'll do the job without having to do much programming myself.

For works with conventional scores, I compose directly in my notation programs - with Finale, Turandot, or Harmony Assistant. Finale and HA allow me to do microtonal notation fairly well. HA can do the playback directly via scripts, while in Finale I make a non-standard key signature and then get a quick and dirty microtonal playback via InTun. If I need to generate a higher quality recording of the score, I render it with either WAVMaker or TiMidity++.

Also, I have been playing with PD for live interactive work and installations and have used CSound for doing small tuning demos. I'm still looking for something to replace the Rayna synth, Atari ST, and Formula for installations.